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Feminists Are Going to the Amazon to Drink Ayahuasca Feminists Are Going to the Amazon to Drink Ayahuasca

Illustration by Vivian Shih

Feminists Are Going to the Amazon to Drink Ayahuasca

The concept of harnessing the powers of ayahuasca for curative and revelatory experiences has gained popularity in recent years. Cosmic Sister, a psychedelic advocacy network, is hoping it can also help women heal from the wounds of the patriarchy.

It was when she was sitting in a maloka—a rustic round cabin with a thatched roof of palm leaves—at the spiritual center Nihue Rao, located in the jungle 30 minutes outside of the Peruvian city Iquitos, that Amy Love broke down and started weeping.

She had come there to drink ayahausca for the first time, along with several other women. After each had received her own personalized icaros, or healing song, from the ceremony's shaman, and set an intention, they dove into world of the plant medicine.

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Love's visions centered on the loss of connection she felt when her daughter was 18 months old and she could no longer be a stay-at-home mom because she had to reenter the workforce to support her family. "I flashed back to a time before I started my business, when my daughter was still an infant in my arms," she said. "My heart broke open, and I just started weeping. I wept long and hard, and soon it evolved to a weeping for the loss of connection between myself and my mother, and for she and her mother's, and my sister's, and on and on back through my ancestral lines..."

Then she looked up and noticed that all the women surrounding her in the maloka were also crying. "I realized—remembered, became aware of—on a cellular level, the bond between all women on planet Earth, the interconnected sisterhood between us all," she said.

The following night, she said, she was healed of a separate trauma: A man had assaulted her in her home a year before, and that evening she experienced a profound, physical catharsis. "I had been carrying that trauma with me, and it exited my body in one forceful ejection of vomit that took the visual form of a neat bundle of skulls looking up at me from the toilet," she said. "I instantly recognized the look in their glittering eyes as the same gleeful evil intent that was in his eyes that day... It was now in my power to flush this thing down the toilet forever, which I promptly did."

The rest of the night, she said, "was pure joyous experience of the sounds of all the life of the jungle communing as one in one great symphony of song. It was euphoria beyond anything I had ever before contained in my being."

I had been carrying that trauma with me, and it exited my body in one forceful ejection of vomit.

Love is one of numerous people who have, in recent years, turned to a humble vine from the Amazon in the quest for a powerful cure-all. People struggling with addiction, celebrities and laypeople trying to find meaning in their lives, and Silicon Valley zealots obsessed with the metrics of self-actualization have all found their way to ayahuasca.

Zoe Helene, a psychedelic activist, hopes feminists will, too. Through her organization, Cosmic Sister, Helene founded the Plant Spirit Grant, a grant to enable women to "experience the healing and consciousness-expanding journey of ayahuasca ceremony in the Peruvian Amazon." Since 2013, she's taken Love and 13 other women, recognized for their work or interest in psychedelics, with her to the birthplace of the global ayahuasca movement.

She advocates for what she calls "psychedelic feminism," a philosophy that includes making sure more women are represented in psychedelic research. But it also goes beyond that. Helene believes that one woman's deep dive inward through ayahuasca can trigger radical potential in their own lives and radiate outward toward.

Zoe Helene and Estella, a shaman at the ayahuasca retreat, DreamGlade. Photo by Tracey Eller for Cosmic Sister

"Psychedelic sacred plant spirit journeying is inherently about breaking through deep programming and self-destructive narratives," she explained to Broadly over the phone. "It's about love and compassion and forgiving others and ourselves. It's also healing wounds and working through issues that affect women, including trauma, depression, anxiety, anger, fear, low self-esteem, addictions, and eating disorders."

As a proof of concept, Helene points to how ayahuasca helped lead her to this very revelation at a crucial time in her life. At 42 years old, she had just left her fiancé and the tech company she founded with him. She set out to find a new purpose and two years later she married Chris Kilham, an ethnobotanist who recently starting appearing as the "Medicine Hunter" on Fox News. But she felt like she wasn't "steering her own life path." It took a trip, during a trip to Peru in 2008, for a psychedelic conference where Kilham was invited to speak, to jolt her out of that sensation.

When she drank ayahuasca for the first time, it brought on intense visions of what she needed to do to move forward in her life. She said it delivered its message in the form of a woman—a common symbol that appears to those who imbibe the brew, often referred to as Mother Ayahuasca. "I was challenged by this warrior goddess, divine feminine figure. I never saw her. She was just pulsating in the darkness," she said. "She challenged me in a way that a grand female power might do if she was disappointed in you but only because she believed in your potential. I was confronted with the fact that I needed to do something with my life and my privilege."

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Mixed into this vision, she says, was the realization that she had "been wounded by the patriarchy in many ways." She remembered a professor she had in grad school who had been abusive to her in class because she refused to sleep with him; she remembered back to when she was studying theatre as a young girl and being offered roles in exchange for sexual favors. When she came out of her visions, she knew that she wanted to form a network for women doing work at the intersection of feminism, environmentalism, and psychedelic advocacy.

"The reason why we don't step into our power is because we are abused by the culture of patriarchy. It's everywhere. You can't get away from it. We literally have to live in a world where we are psychologically abused all the time, and it wears us down," she explained.

Since that night, Helene has been a fervent believer in what psychedelics can do for women. In addition to the Plant Spirit Grant, she funds a companion grant, Women of the Psychedelic Renaissance, so that women can write or make other projects about their experiences, and additionally funds a grant to help cannabis activists to do educational advocacy. She bankrolls all these projects with her own money, with support from any donations she receives through Cosmic Sister's fiscal sponsorship with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS).

"My idea with Cosmic Sister was to have a structure where we can help each other in whatever ways that we can," Helene said. "The goddess [in my vision] told me to step up to the plate and do some work."

Katie Bain. Photo by Tracey Eller for Cosmic Sister

Similar to the concept of self-care, psychedelic feminism follows the ethos that it is important to heal in order to continue the work of healing others. However, ayahuasca—a combination of the Banisteriopsis caapi, an MAO inhibitor, vine and DMT-carrying charcuna leaves—is more to the point than a bubble bath and a night in.

What's both confusing and fascinating about the plant medicine is the immense range of healing properties it's said to have: People often report experiencing profound awakenings, new perspectives on old habits, and even the illumination of repressed memories after participating in an ayahuasca ceremony. This can take a banal form in the privileged—like the investment banker who realized his misguided greed during an ayahuasca experience and became a documentary filmmaker (though not before he made a lot of money doing the former)—but veterans also claim that ayahuasca has immensely helped them with their PTSD.

Dennis McKenna, Terrence McKenna's younger brother and an ethnopharmacologist himself, has described the hallucinogenic plant as a teacher of sorts. "[The plants] exist to give us guidance and wisdom—and I believe that, actually," he said in an interview with the Guardian. One of the first times he drank ayahuasca, McKenna recalled, it showed him photosynthesis at the molecular level.

So what can ayahuasca do for women? Those who have gone to retreats with Helene have found the lessons from the plant medicine have helped them recover from gendered violence they experienced in their lives. "Many people, women particularly, are hindered by timidity and self-doubt," said Faye Sakellaridis, one of the women who ventured to Peru with Helene earlier this month. "Ayahuasca helps us become our own greatest allies rather than our own worst enemies."

Ayahuasca helps us become our own greatest allies rather than our own worst enemies.

According to Sakellaridis, "Ayahuasca empowers by helping you confront yourself. At first, the medicine delivered my demons to me like a sledgehammer to my third eye, which was terrifying," she recalled. "When I got myself out of fetal position and faced them head on, the medicine started to work with me in unbelievable ways, aligning me with my deepest fortitude."

Other recipients of this year's Plant Spirit Grant included a medical doctor, a journalist, a musician, and a psychedelic scholar, Neşe Devenot. She says that ayahuasca helped her process her divorce from her abusive ex. "I released my lingering attachments to my ex-partner, and I processed a great deal of the underlying emotional pain associated with freeing myself from this marriage," she said. "The sisterhood aspect of the experience was a big factor in this, since our experiences of sharing and bonding with each other as a group worked synergistically with the ayahuasca, allowing each of us to process and release emotions that were holding us back in our important life work."

In total, seven women travelled down to Peru in the second week of December, each with their own intentions, for four consecutive ayahuasca ceremonies. Rachael Carlevale, an advocate for sustainable cannabis cultivation and a yoga instructor, also joined the group. It was her second excursion to Peru with Helene; Carlevale was the first-ever recipient of a Plant Spirit Grant in 2013, after she was diagnosed with a uterine tumor.

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A few days after she landed back in the United States, I spoke with her over the phone about her experiences with ayahuasca. I was prepared to hear how the plant had enhanced her mood or navigated her toward a certain calling, but, in no uncertain terms, she told me that it shrunk her tumor. "It has been very helpful with healing from the cellular level to the spiritual level. I absolutely can attest to that," she said. "Since going down there I have worked only with plant medicine and yoga and meditation for my healing and have shrunk my tumor over 20 millimeters."

This most recent trip, she intoned, might have even gotten rid of it entirely. "Conventional doctors had wanted to give me an emergency hysterectomy," she said. "I always had in the back of my mind, should my conditions worsen, I would consider the allopathic methods such as surgery. But I thankfully haven't needed to, and I've only been getting healthier every day. Actually, the last time I went down, I had these visions and feelings of completely getting rid of the tumor. So I'm excited. I'm going to get an ultrasound to check and see if it's actually gone because that's what I saw and felt happening in ceremony." Ayahuasca, she added, also helped her with her fear of spiders.

The bit about spiders notwithstanding, Carlevale's incredible story underscores just how much more research on ayahuasca is needed. There's evidence to suggest that the hallucinogenic in ayahuasca, DMT, "may function as indirect antioxidants" and can mitigate cellular stress—which is associated with cancerous tumors—as a sigma-1 receptor agonist. Ayahuasca's pharmacology, however, is not yet fully understood and the only studies that have been conducted using the plant itself have been observational. MAPS recommends that "anyone considering using ayahuasca in a therapeutic, spiritual, or religious context should carefully weigh the risks and benefits, and ensure that medical assistance is available."

Rachael Carlevale. Photo by Tracey Eller for Cosmic Sister

The traditional use of ayahuasca by indigenous people in the Amazon region of Ecuador, Columbia, Peru, and Brazil was somewhat different; they used it as tool for magic practices and daily life for thousands of years. Under the belief that illnesses were supernaturally caused, a sick person, for example, would visit a curandero—or shaman—and the healer would drink the plant medicine themselves to divine the origin of their patient's sickness.

In late 60s, when the western study of the brew picked up, anthropologist Marlene Dobkin De Rios spent five months in Iquitos, Peru, observing this traditional use of ayahuasca and its function in Peruvian society at large.

When it was time for her to leave, however, she didn't feel like her work had been completed: She had not yet tried the entheogen. "I must admit that I was frightened, in fact horrified to imagine all the terrible things that self-knowledge could bring me," she wrote in Visionary Vine, her 1971 book and the first published account of an ayahuasca trip from the perspective of a woman.

De Rios, "resolved then finally to take the plunge," ended up in a wooden house afloat the Amazon river with a colleague, a shaman, and two other people. Ten minutes after drinking the "not so pleasant-smelling liquid" she felt a strangeness come over her body and she couldn't move her arms and legs. After twenty minutes, she started getting visuals "and a certain amount of anxiety that was not difficult to handle, especially when Halloween-type demons in primary reds, greens, and blues loomed large and then receded." She saw patterns of leaves with her eyes open and an unknown, Peruvian woman, who was sneering at her. Then she vomited and had diarrhea for three hours.

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It was not, it seemed, a very pleasant or profound experience. When De Rios told some friends she had made in Peru about the sneering woman she had envisioned, they suggested that the plant was attempting to reveal who was responsible for the parasitic illness she had experienced while working in the Amazon. This led her to think that ayahuasca's revelatory properties are culturally specific or, in other words, are simply Rorschach-esque interpretations. "Had I grown up in a society and received continual conditioning toward a belief in a magical source of sickness, it is quite probable that I would have interpreted this vision as a revelation of who it was that caused me to become ill," she wrote.

However, the brew did have a positive effect on De Rios: For several months later, she wrote, she felt "a general sense of well-being." Since then, the dominant practical application of ayahuasca has moved away from its roots in prophecy. The vine's role in promoting wellness has proliferated in recent years, thanks to scholarship like De Rios', which eventually gave way to popular articles in the media. In fact, De Rios had observed in 60s that the vine was already a therapeutic curiosity for the wealthier segments of the population in Peru that were not connected to indigenous people. In the 1980s, when an emerging cosmopolitan class became more aware of the purported transformative properties of the brew, ayahuasca tourism took off in the west.

In a 1994 paper plainly titled "Drug Tourism In the Amazon," De Rios harshly characterized "this search for foreign drugs in a foreign setting" as "a post-modern phenomenon as world capitalism changes its emphasis from production to consumption and meeting consumer needs—whatever they happen to be." De Rios, who died in 2012, chalked up the plant to just another way to soothe "the empty self" and dismissed any introspective benefits that could be derived from an ayahuasca ritual to the theatre of shamanism and people's mere suggestibility.

Katie Bain and Sandra Garcia, interviewing Jobanna, a Shipibo artist. Photo by Tracey Eller for Cosmic Sister

In contrast to the first woman to write about ayahuasca, Helene and modern proponents of the medicinal plant clearly have a much sunnier view of what it can do, and why so many people have come to seek it out. Helene hopes that one day ayahuasca will be even more freely and widely available—and that more women will be able to study the plant. "It's really cool to see it at the source," she said, "but it would be really nice if these kinds of things were accessible in normal American life."

However, unlike synthetic psychedelics like MDMA and LSD, which are now being explored for their therapeutic properties, ayahausca is tied to a storied culture and physical space. The globalization of ayahuasca has already had negative effects on indigenous groups in the Amazon: Ayahuasca ceremonies have become a large tourism industry, and most retreats in Peru are now run by westerners, often leaving indigenous people out of their business models. The ability to export the plant, which exclusively grows in the Amazon, could be even more detrimental as it is already becoming scarce and native tribes have started to worry that their culture is disappearing.

But, for better or worse, it is now also the case that ayahuasca tourism provides a crucial source of income for indigenous people who can train and find work as shamans. "The sad fact is, there are very few decent professions for native people in the Amazon. The level of poverty in Iquitos is intense and the destruction of the Amazonian rainforests and rivers is horrifying," Helene explained. She hopes that she can empower indigenous people by making sure they get a cut of the profits that are being made from their traditional knowledge.

"We do not tolerate exploitation and over-harvesting. It is our work and passion to fight against such things," she said. "We only go to [ayahuasca retreats] that are not just respectful of native culture, but are actually helping in some way." Helene took this year's grant recipients to an ayahuasca retreat outside Iquitos—Dreamglade—that was founded by a British expat and employs indigenous shamans from the Shipibo tribe.

She says most mindful ayahuasca journeyers have a symbiotic relationship with the indigenous people; the Shipibo women, for instance, also make money by selling hand-embroidered and hand-painted textiles based on their ayahuasca visions to tourists. "Purchasing art work directly from the artist or as directly as possible is one of the best ways to support the Shipbo people in preserving this cultural tradition and further developing as individual artists," Helene said. One woman who received a grant to come on the trip, Sandra Garcia, is a Spanish translator who helped Helene conduct interviews with the female curanderos for a larger project she is working on to highlight how native women's plant work connects with their art making.

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Helene says she is planning on launching an additional grant through Cosmic Sister that would support native women in getting the training they need to be shamans, which typically takes months, if not years, of study. Historically, and across several different tribes, women have not been allowed to handle entheogenic plants, and this is only just beginning to change.

"There are women shamans, but there aren't enough. I would love it if women who are already shamans picked women [to receive a grant]. It would be an apprenticeship, which [shamans] do already, but it's mostly males," she explained. "A little bit of money goes a really long way—I couldn't do this for a thousand people, but maybe for two women a year." She added, "I do have the money, infrastructure, and understanding to help, so why not?" Indeed, there are certainly worse things you could do with your money.

Ayahuasca boiling down. Photo by Tracey Eller for Cosmic Sister

The renewed interest in the therapeutic value of hallucinogens has been called a psychedelic renaissance. So perhaps its apt to think of Helene in the vein of psychedelic pioneers like Owsley Stanley—though he purports that he never set out to change the world by manufacturing and giving away free tabs of LSD—for all her idealism in what one psychedelic can do, one person at a time. She is firm believer in both women and ayahuasca, and she sees the potential in combining the two as boundless.

After Carlevale's first ayahuasca trip, for example, she was inspired to come home to Colorado, where she worked as an education program manager at Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, and revised the women's health provider's regional sex education curriculum. "Ayahuasca sort of brings you past that into a space of the 'why,'" she explained. So she designed a new program focused around deeper questions surrounding sexual health, as opposed to the standard teaching methods, like "how to put on a condom or what the different types of birth control are."

But what happens next, Helene says, isn't up to her. "If you help one woman, who is the right type of woman, and she becomes more empowered, she will be free to do something new. Then she goes back to her own home, integrates those learnings and those visions in her own life, and then helps other women," she said. "It's a paying-it-forward model. I'm not in control of the process and I don't want to be in control of it; that's a patriarchal idea. These women do their own thing."

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